Following on from my colleague Lisa Jones’ blog (January 2023), I want to consider further the recent paper by Carol Ryff (2022) “Positive Psychology: Looking back and looking forward.

From its inception, PP was intended to redress the historical focus on the negative and dysfunctional in psychology research and practice and seek what makes life vibrant and full. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) suggested that the movement, if successful, could become redundant and be subsumed into “psychology as usual”. Has that happened? Is PP still needed and if so what is its role, function and direction within the wider field?

 

The waves of PP

The history of PP is often described in a number of “waves”. The first wave of PP focussed heavily on boosting the positive and was criticised for promoting “toxic positivity”. This largely was due to a misunderstanding of the true nature of PP (in my opinion), but on the plus side a wider focus on “what makes a good life” did seem to gain traction in research.

The potential “Pollyanna” nature of first-wave PP was addressed with the development of the second wave or PP 2.0. (Ivtzan et al. 2016, Wong 2011). This considered the dialectics of life and reconnected PP with its neglected humanistic and existential roots. The focus was on a balance of positive and negative experiences in context and the complex interplay of all the shades of grey in between black and white which reflect the reality of human experience. The role of meaning, wisdom, purpose, values and growth as part of the “good” life came to the fore alongside strengths, positive emotions, connection and relationships, goal achievement, resilience and other typically “positive” topics. Understanding the role of inevitable human challenge and suffering in what makes life rich, full and flourishing received greater attention in research and practice.

A criticism of PP that remained was that, despite the early intentions to grow flourishing organisations and societies, the focus in practice had remained at an individual level. The onus was still on personal responsibility for wellbeing and centred in terms of research findings mainly on privileged, white, educated, Western populations.

Third-wave PP (Lomas et al. 2021) seeks to move beyond this to a more pluralistic, systems approach promoting change at higher levels of society. Issues remain in enacting this move in terms of the locus of responsibility for change and the embedded inequalities in financial systems which fund, disseminate and operationalise research findings. In addition, the research methodologies needed to progress are complex, expensive (longitudinal), and in some cases, the relevant analytical procedures have not yet been developed.

 

Do we still need PP?

Ryff’s (2022) timely review, highlights a number of these criticisms and looks at potential ways forward. Her essential criticisms are that PP is elitist, isolationist and guilty of seeking sexy, over-simplistic, commercial sound bite solutions which overstep the empirical evidence and plagiarise the work of other psychological traditions without taking any responsibility for trying to address complex and endemic societal issues and make the world a better place.

Ryff is much more polite about it of course, but that is my read on it. I can see why she might think that and I agree with some of what she says. However, my experience of being an associate lecturer on an MSc in Applied Psychology (MAPP) course in the UK (at Buckinghamshire New University) doesn’t really back that up. Maybe PP in the UK is somewhat different to how it is experienced in the USA. What I see in our students is people from a huge range of backgrounds and every corner of the world (except Antarctica). These people generally have not gone the formal academic psychology route but they come with a thirst to promote good in the world and bring curious and questioning minds and diverse perspectives. Many of our students are mature and have had careers in everything from teaching yoga to the construction industry. Although those perhaps have more in common than I first thought when I wrote it!

For me, when I was a student on the course and now as a tutor, this diversity is a breath of fresh air. As someone who did go the traditional academic (clinical) psychology route I love the challenge of a completely different perspective. From “that seems like rubbish”, “isn’t that obvious?”, “so what is it actually measuring?” to “well why does it have to be done like that?” The best, often humbling questions come up, cutting through academic rhetoric. It does mean students sometimes have very steep learning curves in terms of the nature of scientific rigour and critical thinking but most of them amaze themselves with their ability to learn at a personal, practical and academic level.

The course, having been developed by Dr Piers Worth and Dr Matthew Smith, puts great store on experiential learning and the idea that “the first intervention is ourselves “. The melting pot of views we encounter is the antithesis of what Ryff describes as a discipline cut off from the related fields of religion, spirituality, philosophy, education, medicine, biology, nursing, psychiatry, environmental science, sociology, anthropology, politics and coaching. I agree with her that more collaboration across disciplines is vital if we are to try and address the very real issues facing our world.

However, I think PP is more than what is published (especially in quick-fix self-help books). At its best PP is a community of people, like those on this website, who want the world to be a better place and want to work to make this happen in a practical way. We know our earth is broken and many aspects of our societies and cultures systematically reinforce injustice, greed and ignorance. There is no quick slick fix for this. I have written in my previous blogs about the importance of radical interconnectedness and psychology’s tendency to shy away from anything value-laden. We want to be a science and it is important to try and be rigorous and responsible in our research and how we communicate our findings, but even the most “positivist” research is laden with bias and assumption no matter how much it tries to eradicate it. What we need is transparency, ownership and accountability about this. Humanity is messy (as well as in a mess) we need to own this to find solutions.

So I endorse Ryff’s view that we need a more cautious, integrative, creatively innovative, socially responsible, theoretically and methodologically sophisticated PP if it is actually to be a movement with a transformative legacy. Is this possible or should PP merge back into “psychology as usual”?

 

The Future?

I see encouraging signs that some of the above issues are being addressed within the third wave of PP. An increased reliance on triangulation of research using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies is emerging and providing depth to the findings. Dynamic systems thinking and modelling are also increasingly being applied in PP (Holtge et al. 2022, Lomas & VanderWeele 2021) improving the nuance and complexity of understanding human experience. Further, integrative approaches to understanding processes of change across disciplines to promote cooperative research and practice are more widely being advocated (Ciarrochi et al. 2022). These highlight the role of context and caution against over-generalisation. As Ryff (2022) also advocates, the role of nature and creativity as fundamental elements of the good life is also being pursued in current research.

 

Conclusion

The diffuse nature of PP with feet in many professional camps (some of which are outlined above) means that ethical and professional oversight of the discipline is hard. The flip side of this is the breadth of reach (another tricky dialectic). If PP is considered a lens which helps us orientate to cultivating the best in humanity, maybe this could be a good thing?

When the world is such a challenging place, it is very easy to get sucked in by our negativity bias to focus on local problem-based solutions. We need a lens across disciplines that spreads the light and helps us also remember to look up and out with hope and commitment to making life better for the whole world. I don’t have any trouble finding problems and looking down and in. Both in my personal life and in my professional teaching, therapy and coaching endeavours, PP helps to redress that perspective every day. My default reaction, based on years of traditional psychological training, is “what’s the problem, how can I fix it?”.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we have a saying, “Are you treating your client as a roadblock or a beautiful rainbow to be understood and appreciated?” PP is the lens that helps me see the rainbow and remember it is not up to me to “fix it” but help it find its own path. We know PP is no simplistic solution. There is no easy pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But I still need that lens to reorientate me and despite all the caveats outlined above which do require attention, I think the world does too. I personally still don’t like the term ” Positive Psychology”, I don’t think it captures the complexity of the discipline, but neither have I come up with a better alternative. For now, I choose to keep advocating for PP.

 

Disclaimer

This blog is clearly highly opinionated and reflects my views alone. I acknowledge my conflict of interest as an associate lecturer at BNU but do not speak for them or on behalf of the MAPP in this context.

 

References

Ciarrochi J., Hayes S. C., Oades L. G. & Hofmann, S. G. (2022) Toward a Unified

Framework for Positive Psychology Interventions: Evidence-Based Processes of Change in Coaching, Prevention, and Training. Front. Psychol. 12:809362 .doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.809362

Höltge, J., Cowden, R., Lee, M., Bechara, A., Joynt, S., Kamble, S., Khalanskyi, V., Shtanko, L. Kurniati, N., Tymchenko, S., Voytenko, V., McNeely, E & VanderWeele, T. (2022): A systems perspective on human flourishing: Exploring cross-country similarities and differences of a multisystemic flourishing network, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2022.2093784

Ivtzan, T. Lomas, K. Heffron & P. Worth. (2016)  Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the dark side of life. Routledge.

Lomas, T. & VanderWeele, T.J. (2021): The complex creation of happiness: Multidimensional conditionality in the drivers of happy people and societies, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1991453

Lomas, T., Waters, L. , Williams, P. , Oades, L.G. & Kern, M.L. (2020): Third wave positive psychology: broadening towards complexity, The Journal of Positive Psychology,  https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1805501

Ryff CD (2022) Positive Psychology: Looking Back and Looking Forward. Front. Psychol. 13:840062. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.840062

Wong, P.T. (2011). Positive Psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/a0022511

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